HERE'S ALL THE POOP ON THE OPENING OF NOLA CITY BARK
Kathy Schrenk is walking on a trail snaking around NOLA City Bark, the new dog park in New Orleans City Park. Works Progress Administration benches and bay magnolia saplings adorn the path. Schrenk stops when she notices a paw print in the mud at her feet.
"Evidence," she says. "The dogs like it."
A gate-crashing canine must have snuck in to the dog park, which does not officially open its double gates until March 27. For now, workers are dumping wheelbarrows of sand on the moist ground, putting the final touches on a nine-month construction project. After two-and-a-half years of monthly board meetings, extensive research, numerous donations and fundraisers, and many hours of volunteer work, New Orleans' first dog park is ready for romping.
The park, located behind Popp Fountain on Zachary Taylor Drive off Marconi Drive, was built because of a growing demand from a dog-owning public in a city without an off-leash park, according to Jackie Shreves, treasurer of the Louisiana SPCA and City Bark president. "When people left for the storm ... they went to places that had dog parks and then they came back and said, 'Why don't we have one?'" Shreves says.
Baton Rouge has two operational dog parks and three under construction. Jefferson Parish recently built a dog park at the Bonnabel Boat Launch on Lake Pontchartrain. New York City, Shreves says, has more than 50.
Since August 2007, Shreves and the park's board members have met on the second Wednesday of every month to plan NOLA City Bark (www.nolacitybark.org). The planners always knew they wanted more for their dogs than a fence around some dirt. A little lagniappe would make this a model dog park, they say. Fire hydrants painted fire-engine red would greet dogs at the entrance. Inside the park, the bathrooms, for "Pointers" and "Setters" alike, would have tiny fire hoses attached to their exterior walls for the dogs. Water fountains at dog-lapping level were essential. A play fountain — a doggie-sized approximation of the adjacent Popp Fountain — would provide a place to cool off in the summer. If all dogs go to heaven, the board wanted to make NOLA City Bark a close second here on earth.
These perks were part of the vision for the park, but most importantly, it was going to be a safe place for urban dogs and their owners to exercise and socialize.
"[New Orleans has] a leash law," Shreves says. "There's really no place for them to go and to run, unless you're going to break the law."
While no one will be 'policing' the premises, Shreves says, there are rules and regulations at NOLA City Bark. All dogs must be spayed or neutered. No children under 8 years old are allowed on the premises. Aggressive dogs must be leashed and leave immediately if they cause trouble. Large dogs and small dogs will be separated.
These rules are not arbitrary. The board did its homework — a 2002 study of 17 California dog parks by the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis concluded that owners should always carry a leash in case their dogs become aggressive, and children under 14 should not be allowed in the park unsupervised. It also suggested that there should be a limit to the number of dogs allowed per person. NOLA City Bark has a three dog per family maximum. (A full list of rules and regulations are available on the Web site www.nolacitybark.org.)
Ryan Andree, a local obedience trainer and dog behavior consultant, says the rules are necessary, but it is vital for people to know their dogs' behavioral limits. Some dogs have never socialized and may take some time getting used to the other dogs. Owners should allow older or undersocialized dogs to grow accustomed to the park and the surrounding area before letting them off their leashes, Andree says.
"Don't just throw him in there. Let him smell around," he says.
Melissa Bain, a director of veterinary medicine and one of the researchers for the UC Davis study, agrees not all dogs are dog-park friendly. While the study concluded that "injuries to people and dogs from dog bites at legal off-leash areas are rare," it says a scarcity of aggressive or "undersocialized" dogs in the parks is the reason.
"If the dog isn't appropriate to go to a dog park, that doesn't mean it's a bad dog," Bain says.
The dog park was part of the master plan for City Park that was ready to be implemented by the summer of 2005, Shreves says, but it was put on hold after Hurricane Katrina. Two years later, Shreves sent an email to friends she thought might be interested in resuming the project. Ten people showed up to the first meeting, nine of whom Shreves says she did not know. Now, 21 people (all dog owners) sit on the board of directors.
One of their responsibilities, of course, was to allocate funds. They raised approximately $450,000 through donations, which Shreves says ranged from $5 to $25,000. Shreves describes the annual operating budget as a "moving target" and says the nonprofit is not finished raising money. In order to offset operational costs, the directors decided that an annual permit fee of $35 per household ($30 for members of Friends of City Park) was necessary.
"This is very unusual in a dog park," Shreves says. "Most public dog parks are free."
But operating costs at City Park are not funded by the city, and the state provides limited resources. In 2009, Louisiana paid for 19 percent of City Park's operating expenses. The rest was self-generated. The deal with the park, Shreves says, was to come up with enough money through user fees to maintain the dog park.
Maintenance is key to a dog park's continued success, according to the UC Davis study, which provides this analogy: "... as in reducing the occurrence of graffiti in urban areas by promptly removing graffiti, promptly removing fecal droppings encourages people to follow the rules about cleanliness."
Plastic bag dispensers will be refilled and trashcans emptied regularly, but not all of the operational aspects of maintaining the park will be so visible. Shreves says this includes spraying for fleas once a month, cutting the grass and cleaning the bathrooms. The park will close Tuesday mornings specifically for maintenance.
While permit fees offset upkeep costs, construction was not simple. Drainage was an issue from the beginning and recent heavy rains delayed the project.
"When we first started going over there, I was in shrimp boots up to my knees," Shreves says.
City Park eventually contributed funds for proper drainage of the land. The total cost of the park — including expenses for drainage, fill and fencing — was approximately $650,000.
For more than two years, members of the board of directors have held fundraisers ("101 Donations," "Bar Bark"), solicited volunteer groups — one of which came all the way from Bosnia-Herzegovina — and secured large donations from local institutions and individuals. It has been a labor of love, and some frustration, for Schrenk, Shreves and the rest of the board, all of whom saw something missing in the canine community in New Orleans. Schrenk calls City Bark her "pet project," but the pun is inadequate, unless her pet is an elephant.
Schrenk walks up to the doggie cooling fountain. It is shaped like a fire hydrant for dogs to splash in on hot days. Schrenk presses a button. Nothing happens at first. The park is still under construction, after all.
"Oh, well," she says, "maybe they haven't ..."
And then the geyser sprays upward.